Hollywood's A-List Redefined

4:34 PM PST 11/10/2010 by Jay A. Fernandez
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Art Streiber/August
Most Wanted: "It's a balance between having a concrete plan and a certain amount of letting go," Chris Pine says of his career serendipity.

Very few actors find themselves standing on the edge of major stardom. Chris Pine is now in that enviable, if precarious, position, and he's trying to take the native uncertainty in stride. With a huge hit last year in Star Trek, in which he made the iconic role of Capt. James T. Kirk his own, and the imminent release of the action flick Unstoppable, in which he stars opposite veteran A-lister Denzel Washington, Pine is determinedly realistic about it all.

"It's definitely a balance between having a concrete plan about where you want to go and a certain amount of letting go and knowing that you can't control everything," Pine says about his decision-making process. "Sometimes you just have to come-what-may and take whatever script comes down the pike that has at least a kernel of something challenging or interesting."

As the vaunted old guard has seen its grip on the power and paychecks loosen and the business of moviemaking has buckled and bent in recent years, the industry has been hard at work conspiring to create the next batch of A-Listers. Pine is one of a clutch of younger actors pushing -- and being pushed -- into more star-making terrain. Between now and the end of summer 2012, audiences will see Pine, Shia LaBeouf, Taylor Kitsch, Sam Worthington, Chris Hemsworth, Taylor Lautner, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Ryan Reynolds holding up studio tentpoles -- sometimes more than one.

"We need these kids -- desperately," one studio producer says. "And there happens to be a crop of five or six of them that actually are filling the role."

Hollywood will always have its stars, but every so often the constellations change. And when (or if) these new guys reach movie-star Mount Olympus, it's likely to look a lot different than it did when Willis, Cruise and Carrey were stalking its halls. The go-go Reagan years prompted the swagger and success of guys like Bruce Willis, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson. Movies were greenlighted overnight based on their interest, and major studios were still independent enough to take calculated risks on the backs of the on-camera talent alone. Once Jim Carrey scored $20 million from Sony to star in The Cable Guy in 1996, the star machine went into overdrive -- some might say that was a watershed moment -- and every new wannabe A-Lister was pointing to the other guy as proof that his own value was just as massive. The race to the VIP $20 million/20% backend club was on, and guys like Washington, Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler chugged their way to the top.

But once the corporatization of the industry took root and vertically integrated companies turned movies into nothing more than line items on a gigantic spreadsheet, the bean counters started wondering why stars were getting so much money. And once the economy lost its footing, so did stars and their agents. But it's not just the financial contours that have changed, it's the whole way movies are selected, promoted and consumed -- and the nature of the movie star is changing with it. The concept of the A-List itself could be in danger.

"How we're looking at movies and what are their values and how the different pieces connect is a whole different equation than it was five years ago," says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was production president at Warners from 1996-2002. "We have a shift going on where there's a whole new group of men that are attracting an audience that wasn't there 10-15 years ago."

The truth is that no one really understands the star system in Hollywood. There are hundreds of young, charming, good-looking actors scoring parts and making career inroads at any given time. But even with all the ambition and guidance and luck and careful plotting, no one can really say why Actor X breaks through to the A-list and Actor Y doesn't. The star-making algorithm is indecipherable, even as some actors mysteriously take on the cast of the inevitable.

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